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Where does the expression ‘to mind your Ps and Qs’ come from?

If you have you ever been told to mind your Ps and Qs, it might have struck you as a rather odd thing to do. The concept seems reasonable enough– behaving well and not giving offence – but quite what the letters P and Q have to do with this is a little more mysterious. Why not B and D, or M and N, or any other combination? Sadly, as is often the case with the more intriguing terms in the English language, there is no definitive answer to the etymological conundrum, but there are plenty of theories – some more fanciful than others.

The Oxford English Dictionary devotes a whole entry to Ps and Qs, adding a few more senses to the above-mentioned. As well as being mindful of them, you can be on your Ps and Qs, meaning be on your best behaviour, or (in the USA) on your toes; something can be P and Q, if it is of the highest quality; and one’s Ps and Qs can be the alphabet.

I mean queen not pueen

This last meaning relates directly to one of the more enduring theories surrounding the origin of the phrase, namely that it refers to the difficulty that a young child might initially have in distinguishing the tailed letters p and q, and is therefore something that he or she should attend to with care. This sounds even more plausible when you consider a related theory that it refers to typesetters who would, of course, have to recognise these letters backwards, and could logically therefore be expected to have to take extra care to make sure they weren’t inadvertently mixed up. But, compelling as both of these may seem, there is little evidence to back either up. Chronologically speaking, the sense of P and Q meaning alphabet, which is implicit in these theories, is later than others, cited first in the OED from 1763 – and none of the earlier quotations have any alphabetical connotation.

Ahoy there, landlords

Similarly, it has been suggested that the P stands for pint and the Q for quart, with reference to a landlord not getting these measures mixed up on a customer’s account. It’s easy to see how this would be a good thing to mind, but again, there is no way to substantiate or dismiss this as why it is Ps and Qs that we mind.

Yet another theory makes reference to the P being a sailor’s pea coat and the Q being queue, a pigtail. The first quotation in the OED entry does give some credence to this:

1602 T. Dekker Satiro-mastix sig. E2v, Now thou art in thy Pee and Kue, thou hast such a villanous broad backe, that I warrant th’art able to beare away any mans iestes in England.

While it is conceivable that the P here could refer to the sailor’s garment, there seems to be no connection with clothing in any of the other senses. When you add the fact that queue is attested considerably later, this explanation seems less and less likely.

The best possible manners

A popular suggestion is that the Ps and Qs stand for pleases and thank yous  (say ‘thank yous’ out loud to see why), which makes direct reference to the idea of manners. This would be fine, except for the fact that ‘pleases and thank yous’, as a phrase, is not independently attested before the 20th century. It is unlikely, therefore, that a contraction of the phrase would exist nearly 300 years before.

The phrase “to be P and Q” gives rise to a suggestion that the P stands for prime and the Q for quality. Semantically this fits in, but how do you account for the and?

Mind your dancing

Or how about the explanation that the reference is to instructions for dance figures using the French words pied, meaning foot, and queue, meaning pigtail, presumably with the idea being that you should take care with the placement of your feet and that your queue (which was often attached to a large wig) didn’t fall off. Again, there is just no evidence to support this, and neither French word is attested in this sense.

So, it seems we will have to carry on minding them, without quite knowing why…